John Edgar Wideman | Critical Review by Mel Watkins

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of John Edgar Wideman.
This section contains 760 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Mel Watkins

Critical Review by Mel Watkins

SOURCE: "A Son's Notes," in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 99, November 13, 1994, p. 11.

In the following review, Watkins provides a laudatory assessment of Fatheralong.

John Edgar Wideman's latest book, Fatheralong, is a hybrid. It is at once a memoir and a meditation on fatherhood, race, metaphysics, time and the afterlife. Mr. Wideman has laid claim to a vast landscape, which he traverses boldly, although occasionally with uneven steps.

As a memoir it is superb. The author brings all of his considerable skills (demonstrated in the novels of his Homewood trilogy and in his short fiction) into play in a quest to understand the simultaneous estrangement and physical connection he felt toward his father.

The book's title is derived from the gospel song "Father Along," a song that for Mr. Wideman suggests the value of "resignation, learning to wait and trust and endure." These are the qualities, he writes, that not only lead to spiritual redemption but also enable a son in to bridge the gulf between himself and his father—"to learn (earn) the Father's name." Coming to terms with that struggle is the central theme of Fatheralong.

To that end, Mr. Wideman provides a string of vignettes and rich details from his early life in Pittsburgh that contrast his father's distance and coldness ("A familiar stranger, Unpredictable, vaguely threatening") with his mother's intimacy and love ("She was always there. With me. If she had disappeared, no there would exist").

The safety of home in the company of his mother, her sisters and their mother, and the rare moments when his father broke through his wall of coldness and demonstrated affection (hoisting the young John onto his shoulders at a parade, for instance), are set against the danger of the elder Wideman's world outside the home ("the disreputable, darker streets of Homewood") and the risks and challenges American's racist legacy still presents to African-Americans—black men in particular.

Illuminated by Mr. Wideman's keen eye and evocative prose, these early scenes, as well as characters like K. Leroy Irvis (a lawyer and the first black speaker of the Pennsylvania of Representatives) or his father's cousin James Karris, known as Littleman, and descriptions of a visit to his grandfather's house in Promised Land, the Mack community outside Greenwood, S.C., or of the tawdry train station in Springfield, Mass., at which he meets his father on the occasion of his own son's marriage, are vividly recounted.

These people and events are the foundation of Fatheralong, the substantive core that inspires the ruminations and ideas that resonate throughout the book. Mr. Wideman seems to depict his own technique when he describes the cadence of Littleman's speech: "You take your time, give memories an opportunity to sashay in and out, echo and instruct or fuse with other words, other visions."

Accordingly, the narrative is laced with impressionistic asides and musings on subjects as diverse as America's fascination with racing distinctions or the ambivalent attraction-repulsion the author (as a married college professor) felt when watching dancers at a sleazy topless club. These imaginative junkets are sometimes contradictory, as when Mr. Wideman first annihilates all scientific justification for "the paradigm of race" and then envisions himself as a victim because of race. Sometimes they are intrusive, veering toward sociological jargon. More often, however, they provide a fascinating journey into Mr. Wideman's mind. Observations, fragments of anecdotes, phrases like "my skin recalls sensations I can't name yet," prompt rich allusive riffs that engage ever-broadening questions about time, death and our familial and cultural kinship.

There are musicians—sometimes heralded but often obscure—who are known among their peers as "musicians' musicians" because of their affection for their work, as well as their virtuosity and their subtle manipulation of the elements of their craft. John Edgar Wideman is one of a select group of writers who can claim a similar distinction. With such artists, turning to the work is often a more revealing means of defining it than attempting to apply external criteria. And indeed, embedded in the narrative of Fatheralong is perhaps the most telling description of Mr. Wideman's work:

"He swims with the current of words. Listens to himself, not out of self-consciousness but because the language can feel kind of good rolling off your tongue if you let it, ease up and let it carry you, you and not you, recalling your story told by yourself or heard before in another person's telling, a back porch or parlor as you remember how your story began once, consider where it might go this time."

Read with that in mind, Fatheralong is an impressive work.

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This section contains 760 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Mel Watkins
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